Like a newborn foal struggling to stand, horse racing is starting to find its feet after nearly being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three racetracks — Churchill Downs, Charles Town and Golden Gate Fields — are expected to begin running within the next week, all without fans in the stands and with strict health and safety protocols in place to protect track workers.
There is still no word on when Santa Anita Park will be allowed to reopen, and racing at the New York Racing Association racetracks remains in limbo.
That will work to the benefit of Churchill Downs, which belatedly will open its spring-summer meet May 16, a week from Saturday. Even though the pandemic has forced it to cut purses from a record $771,000 a day in the fall to $559,000 a day, top riders and trainers are descending on the Twin Spires en masse.
The Blood Horse reported Thursday that among the jockeys planning on at riding in Louisville are John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Joel Rosario and Jose Ortiz. And among the trainers sending strings will be Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Tom Proctor in addition to Southern California regulars like John Sadler, Richard Baltas, Phil D’Amato, and Jerry Hollendorfer.
Bottom line: Expect full, competitive fields for at least the early part of the Churchill Downs meet.
Meanwhile, Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay Area and Charles Town in West Virginia have been given permission to resume fanless racing on Thursday, assuming the last few required authorizations fall into place.
Add to the menu Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, both of which carried the load when other tracks were being closed by coronavirus fears — along with some smaller tracks like Remington Downs in Oklahoma — and racing fans soon will have something resembling a normal number of tracks to watch.
Notice I didn’t say bet.
Alas, while South Point and Circa casinos this week revived their sports betting apps this week, neither will be offering betting on horse racing.
The explanation I got in the case of South Point is that betting on horse racing via app is a more labor intensive process, so it will not be offered until the casino physically reopens, whenever that is.
Just to rub salt in the wound, Churchill Downs would have been off limits to Nevada players anyway because the long-running dispute between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and the racetrack has not been resolved.
Unless you’ve set up an offshore account, which I do not publicly condone, you’ll have to be satisfied watching more good racing from more tracks until we get to whatever phase of the governor’s reopening plan that will include the state’s casinos.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are down in sunny Florida this weekend, tackling a couple tough turf races: the $75,000 Sunshine Forever Stakes and a tricky allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park.
In the former, a 1 1/16th mile contest for 4-year-olds and up, the crowd ‘cappers are pretty sure a Todd Pletcher-trained horse is going to win, they just can’t decide which one.
As of press time, they were making Halladay (4-1) the narrowest choice over his stablemate Social Paranoia (3-1), with 5-2 morning line favorite Admission Office getting the nod for the show. And they are turning up their noses at last year’s Preakness Stakes winner War of Will (10-1), who returns off a six-month and returns to the turf where he started his career.
There really isn’t a ton of speed in the field, so I too am giving the edge to Halladay. I’ll use El Tormenta (12-1) in the second slot to add some pop in the exotics and Admission Office to show.
In the 10th race, a mile race for 4-year-olds and up who have either non-winners of $10,000 or in for a $25,000 claiming tag, the crew is highly enamored of Battle of Blenheim, the 2-1 morning line favorite. They have Extra Extra (20-1) eking out the place over Gray’s Fable (5-1).
I’m parting company with my peeps for this and taking Shootin the Breeze (8-1), who has the right closing style to win this speed-laden affair and picks up the services of the afore-mentioned Joel Rosario. I’ll use Gray’s Fable to place and Battle of Blenheim to show.
Ellis Starr’s Sunshine Forever Stakes analysis
I like Aquaphobia to win the Sunshine Forever Stakes just as he won the Old Man Eloquent Stakes on the course at the same distance in February. That win came right after trainer Michael Maker claimed him for $62,500 and it was the best effort he put forth in over a year in terms of the 107 Equibase Speed Figure earned in that race. Stepping up into the much tougher Muniz Memorial Stakes one month later, Aquaphobia wasn’t disgraced when fourth of 12. Getting the services of Irad Ortiz, Jr., who has been red hot (15 for 48) since returning from time off in April, Aquaphobia should be in a stalking position around fourth in the early stages just as he was in the Old Man Eloquent in February and get up in time to win.
Social Paranoia certainly deserves a lot of respect when considering who can win this race as he just won the Appleton Stakes over the course. Rallying from last of 12 until the turn, Social Paranoia was visually impressive moving from seventh near the top of the stretch to draw off late. Having won the Dueling Grounds Derby in September prior to that, it’s likely Social Paranoia might run even better in the Sunshine Forever. The 118 figure earned in the Appleton is the best last race figure in the field and there’s no concern with the jockey change to Edgard Zayas, who has won with eight of 30 (27 percent) of starters he’s ridden for trainer Todd Pletcher in the last year.
Admission Office is another with credentials to succeed although he doesn’t find the winners’ circle very often. Winner of three of his first five races, although none of those were stakes races, Admission Office missed by a half-length in the Dixie Stakes on Preakness day last spring. Duplicating that fine effort, Admission Office missed by a half-length in the Wise Dan Stakes one month later, then followed up with defeats by less than a length in the River City Stakes and Fort Lauderdale Stakes. In his most recent race, Admission Office rallied from far back in seventh to make the lead at the top of the stretch in the Mac Diarmida Stakes, only to get run down by multiple stake winner Zulu Alpha in the last sixteenth of a mile. That effort earned a 117 figure on par with the 118 figure Social Paranoia earned over the course one month later so it appears clear Admission Office fits with the top contenders in this race.
Both Halladay and Hawkish get honorable mention as contenders. Halladay earned a career best 115 figure winning his most recent race on April 4 and won a non-graded stakes, the Tropical Park Derby, at this distance over the course two races prior to that. Hawkish won the Cliff Hanger Stakes nearly a year ago to the day with a 115 figure and although attempting to win following seven months off did win in his career debut at a mile on grass so could be the type to fire big when fresh.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Cullum Road (115), El Tormenta (116), Highland Sky (114), Just Whistle (108-dirt), Regally Irish (102), Sand Dancer (104) and War of Will (119).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.